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LeBuff’s new book chronicles the lives of ‘Wildlife Barons’ Bill and Lester Piper

By Staff | Apr 14, 2010

Longtime Sanibelian Charles LeBuff, who has lived on the island for more than 50 years, recently released his latest book, "Everglades Wildlife Barons: The Legendary Piper Brothers and their Wonder Gardens."

Bill and Lester Piper were no strangers to living on the edge in dangerous times, doing dangerous things, and risking their lives on a daily basis. They were financially successful bootleggers during the Great Depression and, after Prohibition was repealed, they put the Detroit River behind them and settled in Bonita Springs.

“I actually worked with both of these men back in 1952 until the time I moved to Sanibel in 1958,” said author and longtime islander Charles LeBuff, who recently published a book about the brothers entitled, “Everglades Wildlife Barons: The Legendary Piper Brothers and their Wonder Gardens.”

“And boy, did they have some stories to tell!” he added.

Several years ago, LeBuff explained, he started a Web site which detailed some of the Piper brothers’ historical – and often hysterical – escapades. They had long been students of the wildlife of the Everglades and the regional wilderness. In the late 1930s, they opened the Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens that evolved into Everglades Wonder Gardens, which by the 1950s became one of Florida’s premier wildlife attractions.

“Fifty years ago, everybody living in Lee County knew the Piper brothers’ names because they were really famous, but over the years those stories sort of got lost,” said LeBuff, who conceived of the idea of turning their tales into a book last fall. “I wanted to share some of the elements of their lives that surely would’ve been lost if not for this book. In this way, I’m introducing these legends to a whole new generation.”

The Piper brothers owned and exhibited the world’s largest collection of threatened American crocodiles, and also pioneered captive propagation of the endangered Florida panther. They, and their animals – like a black bear called “Old Slewfoot” who appeared in “The Yearling” (1946) – were featured in major motion pictures, including “Distant Drums” (1951), in which Lester Piper acted as a stand-in for star Gary Cooper.

LeBuff also pointed out that their Wonder Gardens educated tens of thousands of Americans in the early days of environmental education and eco-tourism – many decades before such terminology became “standard” in places such as Sanibel.

“Their lives were so fascinating… they actually lived the old fashioned American dream,” he explained. “And they did it with very little education and in the face of genuine hardships – gun fights, snake fights, bear attacks. And they became multi-millionaires in the process!”

As the author stated, their mission was clearly stated in their own words: “We have only a sincere desire to give the visitor a clear picture of the thrilling life, dangers, intrigue and constant struggle for existence that goes on in the depths of the impenetrable and fascinating Everglades.”

In his book, LeBuff – who previously authored “The Sanibel Island Lighthouse: A History,” “The Loggerhead Turtle in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico” and “Sanybel Light” – details the brothers and their journey towards fame and fortune. In one story, after a rival gang of bootleggers shot Bill Piper, he retreated to a largely wild and unpopulated portion of Florida, eventually partnering with herpetologist Ross Allen in the development of a reptile farm in Silver Springs.

The Piper brothers owned and exhibited the world’s largest collection of threatened American crocodiles and pioneered the captive propagation of the now endangered Florida panther at a time when the state offered a bounty on the big cats.

LeBuff even interviewed surviving members of the Piper family, who still operate Wonder Gardens today. Lester Piper’s grandson, David Piper, Jr., offers in the book’s introduction, “Who among you would stand toe-to-toe with a black bear, dig into an alligator cave or try to resuscitate a lion using mouth-to-mouth?”

The Piper brothers were undeniably “the Wildlife Barons of the Everglades.”

LeBuff will conduct a booksigning of “Everglades Wildlife Barons” at MacIntosh Books and Paper, located at 2407 Periwinkle Way, on Wednesday, April 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. In addition, the book will be available at the Bonita Springs Pioneer Reunion on Saturday, May 1 and may be purchased at his Web site, located at www.sanybel.com.